I used to have a dachshund named Burke, and Kenneth Burke used to punningly refer to himself as Kennel Bark. Sometimes, visiting Burke the man, when I was accompanied by Burke the dog, I would yell at the dog and the man would answer. This marvelous self-irony is similar to Burke’s capacity to say that war is the disease of cooperation or that any system must provide the instruments for its own criticism. And that is what Burke the poet tells us–that he is not one, but many: that he is aphorist, comedian, dialectician, logologer, dramatist, and poet; that we must remember that the man who built the system is also the man who fought dandelions–fair and square.
William Howe Rueckert, Encounters with Kenneth Burke 27
Burke’s nearly impossible to reduce. “He has never made it into a book club,” they say. But if you had to simplify him, it would be that he insists that we humans are bent toward tragedy, but we need to — if even for a brief moment — live in comedy.
Remember in English lit when your teacher explained the difference between a Shakespearean tragedy and comedy? It’s the same in Aristotle, for that matter. In tragedy somebody dies to cleanse the community from its sin. One dude(tte) rises as the normative character to see the resolution through to the end. Comedies, however, always end with an engagement, wedding, or consumation — a joining together of disparate parts, not subsuming or killing each other, but embracing and improving each other.
It’s not that in comedy we just settle in for a drunken love-in (what a boring story!). It’s not just about accepting one another and ignoring problems. It’s not permissiveness.
No, in comedy, there’s critique. There’s argument. There’s foolishness. There’s irony. But there’s no killing.
In comedy, you don’t look down your aquiline nose at your inferiors chained to the dank cave walls while you enjoy a glimpse at the pretty tree outside. You don’t ignore the guard imprisoning you in your Panopticon. It’s something else entirely.
In comedy, you take your enemies and make them your adversaries. They are no longer evil, just mistaken. In other words, you talk with them, correct them, teach them, be taught by them, and laugh at the whole lot . . . including yourself.
In comedy, there’s no us-vs.-them. It’s us-vs.-the-problem.
In my opinion, Burke’s comedy is a shadow of the Gospel. Burke gets it wrong on many points, as I’ve said elsewhere. But when Christ said on the cross “it is finished,” He was declaring the sacrifice complete. It was done. Tragedy was no longer necessary. He’d taken it all.
And because of Christ, we can all be comedians. We can see our sins in others and not kill them off, but remember our failings and our undeserved forgiveness. That’s the Drama of Grace.
Look how in Life is Beautiful protagonist Guido Orefice tries to translate the worst tragedy into (literal) comedy for his son. About nine minutes in, Uncle Eliseo chivalrously helps the Nazi guard when she stumbles. He’s going to his death, and yet . . . for a moment he forgets that and is simply and gently human.
That’s the story I learned about from Burke, on the Left, from disbelieving agnostics. Even though I was raised in Bible-believing, God-fearing, sola-gratia conservative Protestantism, I never learned to look for it there. But I should have . . . because that’s the whole Gospel story: I love Him because He first loved me.